My approach to dinner parties is the same as to repairing computers: I have no idea how they work but refuse to concede until it’s too late.
What I tend to forget is that my social ineptitude grows exponentially in relation to the number of people at the table. Hours will pass when I say almost nothing but drink too much. A memory hole may develop between the main course and the evening’s conclusion, when I wake up at the wrong end of the Northern Line with a phone full of messages suggesting I apologise. My fantasy involves the other guests not deleting my number afterwards.
My first request is for a restaurant. I know how those work. They have universally understood routines, customs and timings. Restaurants are professional stages for performative entertaining, while homespun alternatives contain an unavoidable element of am-dram. Even the most capable host cannot match the reassurance provided by a defined closing time, stain-resistant flooring and clear signage for the toilets.
The restaurant I have chosen — for its ambience, if not its food — is The Atlantic Bar and Grill, which was hot for about three weeks in the early 2000s. My first visits to London involved staying in what was once a fleapit hotel in Piccadilly Circus, with one shared bathroom per corridor and a plumbing system that rattled like artillery fire. In its basement (I discovered by chance several years later) was the city I had hoped to find. The Atlantic was a rakish, bustling, democratically glamorous, slightly sleazy place, which is now deceased. I fell hard for it and would very much like to go back.
The first course is a round of Old Fashioneds at the bar, as is correct.
For reasons already outlined, my guests need to suffer fools gladly. This raises a problem. Most of the people I admire — writers and musicians, mainly — are acidic types with low boredom thresholds. The risk of inviting the poet Dorothy Parker, for example, is of being destroyed by a withering remark before the cocktails have arrived.
So, if partly for social engineering reasons, the first two invites go to comedians Linda Smith and Billy Connolly. They are room-filling personalities who can fake interest in those much duller than themselves, having spent many years on television doing exactly that. (Connolly’s invitation makes clear that he cannot bring his banjo.)
Comfortable conversation for me means being carried along by someone else’s enthusiasms: it’s a release from the burden of trying to think of interesting things to say myself. With that in mind, my next two guests are Bill Drummond, of techno oddities KLF, and Rebecca Sugar, creator of the cartoon series Steven Universe. They both have that restive sort of genius that fires off in unpredictable directions, and I cannot imagine ever running out of things to ask them. (Sugar has been requested politely but forcefully to leave her ukulele at home.)
Who should cook? The rules allow recruitment from all of history, which is a chance to exhume some legendary figure and put them to work in the kitchen. This is not just my fantasy, however: I am dragging along five complete strangers for the night. Their appreciation of food might not correlate with my own, so the question becomes another wellspring of potential awkwardness. Imagine the guilt of disturbing Marie-Antoine Carême from a restful afterlife only to have my guests turn their noses up at his vol-au-vents.
Instead I am calling on Mikael Jonsson, most recently of Hedone restaurant in Chiswick. He is a sublimely talented chef who cannot pretend, even for a moment, to care what anyone thinks. Imperious confidence leaves no room for uneasiness. Whenever Jonsson serves something not to my taste, I recognise immediately that the failing is mine and not his.
We eat whatever he chooses because with some people there is no point in trying to negotiate. But since I am permitted some authority, I hope his menu opens with xerém, the cornflour mash that is a staple in Brazil and much of Africa. Pedro Pena Bastos, of Cura in Lisbon, makes a refined version of xerém with seaweed and Indian cress that I think about in idle moments at least twice a week.
Langoustine to follow or slipper lobster or whatever alien thing Jonsson dragged out of a hole by its antennae that morning, with samphire, Breton butter and a very cold Manzanilla.
Next up is Anjou pigeon, heavy with blood and booze, some black pudding and pickled morels. Then comes Welsh rarebit, as is proper, while we break the wax seal on a dusty bottle of something that pours like printer ink.
By this time the waiting staff are stacking chairs and divvying up the tronc, meaning that we should really take the hint. But before reality creeps back in, my final guest appears at the table: Frankenstein’s monster — the Mel Brooks version in a top hat and tails. Though his conversation turns out to be just as limited as my own, his introduction hastens the evening towards a most memorable conclusion.
Bryce Elder is the FT’s UK equities reporter
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